7 Questions to Reflect on before the Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity

7 Questions to Reflect on before the Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity

Chances are the feeling, meaning, and practices of Christmas have changed for you over time. From childhood to adulthood the way we prepare and understand the Blessed feast of the Nativity has grown. Whatever way we ourselves interpret the season does not change what is at the heart of it! I want to share a portion of St. John Chrysostom’s sermon on the Nativity of Christ:

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness. 

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me. 

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels. 

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. 

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit, we offer all praise, now and forever. Amen.

St. John Chrysostom shows us what the birth of Christ means for the world. It is the redemption of the flesh through God becoming man. By becoming man he “wroughts a clear path out of confusion.” Christ came to be ‘with us’ in a way which was incomprehensible — Our God who surpasses the heavens was humbled to lie in a manger, and became the very flesh He created. 

Emmanuel means “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). In the incarnation, God is now “commingled” with us. Our relationship with him as humans forever changes after this moment, and even after the Ascension, when his physical body no longer remains on earth, this relationship remains.

This is overwhelmingly amazing but where do we go from here? How do we continue to realize this in our lives? Through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, receiving communion, and confession first and foremost of course! The Church has given us ways to participate simply and receive the overwhelmingly amazing meaning of this Feast in these constant practices. 

This year I have also put together a list of 7 questions which I am reflecting on this week (I want to stress that this is just a list of questions that I have heard or asked myself and have been helpful for me personally). These questions have been a great help in recalling this truth that St. John Chrysostom expresses in his sermon. There are many opportunities for lengthy reflections in each of these, so it may be helpful to choose just a few to tackle in one sitting! I heard a few of these come up in an Advent Series program with YES North America as well as a spiritual discussion with Fr. Panagiotis Boznos. 

1. How do we see or talk about ourselves?

Christ’s image has been redeemed in us. Does this understanding guide our perception of ourselves? Are we quick to talk ourselves up or be too harsh on ourselves?

2. How do we see or talk about the people around us?

Every single person who has ever lived or will ever live is made in the image of God. How do we treat the people around us currently? How do we talk about those we are close to and those we don’t know as well, too? 

3. When do we feel God with us?

What is a time when you have been aware that God is with you? Where were you? What was happening? Were you with other people…maybe you were in prayer? What other factors were playing a role in your life at that point in time?

4. When is it hard to feel God with us?

What is a time where it was difficult to feel God was with you? What is one word which you would use to describe how that moment felt? What factors were playing a role in your life at this point? Where was your focus? Christ promised that He would always be with us. Even though it felt as if God was absent, looking back, are you now able to see any ways in which He was with you?

5. When we struggle, what do we focus on?

The place we give our energy and thoughts determines a lot of our experience and takeaways from difficult times. When going through a struggle what do you see yourself focusing on the most?

6. When we succeed what are we focusing on?

Are we using a success to raise ourselves up or to benefit those around us and raise up Christ? 

7. In this very moment where do you see Christ?

Take 2 minutes to sit in silence. Screens out of sight, music paused. Maybe go outside! Ask yourself where you see Christ here at the beginning of the two minutes? What did you find? Did you focus on your surroundings, thinking of the people in your life currently, a personal struggle, turn to prayer? 

Our understanding of this upcoming Holiday grows with us, the meaning is always constant. From the first Christmas (the Nativity of Christ) until that one year when you were 7 (and thought the world would end if you didn’t get Heelys for Christmas), until Christmas 2020 (undergoing the stresses of navigating togetherness in an isolated world), God has become man and will be with us always. 

As we come to the end of 2020, I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas and congratulate all my fellow struggle bus college students for making it through. I love you all! I pray that St. John Chrysostom’s sermon on the Nativity was useful in better understanding the Feast of the Nativity, and that these questions for reflection were helpful!

Andrew Gluntz

Alethia Placencia

Publications Student Leader

I am a senior at the University of Kentucky studying philosophy and microbiology. I love hiking, staying active, and enjoying great books and food! Above all, I love the family OCF has given me. Whatever your story may be, there is a place for you in this community! Reach out to learn more about OCF or if you would like to contribute to the blog! publicationsstudent@ocf.net

Dressing up for Christmas as Christians

Dressing up for Christmas as Christians

Around this time of year, I find myself buying fun decorations and lights. Perhaps I’ll put together a gingerbread house or find some other cute Christmas treats to bake. Let’s not forget the ugly Christmas sweaters, fuzzy socks, and Santa hats. In fact, while writing this blog entry, I’m sitting here in my Christmas themed pajama-pants complete with dogs in scarves skiing down a hill. 

It is tradition to adorn our homes and even ourselves festively this season. In doing so, we are communicating a piece of the joy of the Nativity. But these adornments, even some silly pajamas, might point to something more profound. We feel the warmth, cheer, and joy of the holiday season when hearing Christmas music or seeing beautiful lights and we want to spread this cheer into the world. 

This joy flows from the knowledge that Christ is Born! Glorify Him! Our Nativity feast reminds us that through the birth of Christ the image of God in us was restored. As the Canon of the Nativity of Our Lord says:

Man was made in the image of God, but he sinned and lost immortality. He fell from the divine and better life, enslaved completely by corruption. Now the wise Creator fashions him again, for He has been glorified!

Our adornments spread the feeling of joy of this wonderful season. These traditions are beautiful, fun, and are part of the awe-some experience of our lives on earth. Although they are associated with Christmas and connect us back to this holiday they may actually cause us to forget the harder work we must do to truly adorn ourselves to celebrate Nativity–to truly adorn ourselves and the world around us in response to the redemption of the image of God within us.

 Christ is the true image of God. Christ is true humanity. In him, we find the kind of human life we were meant to live. As Christians we put on this life as a garment, “For all of you that have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27).

So instead of only dressing-up and decorating our world with physical reminders of Christmas, in following Christ, God prepares us for the true festivities: “See, I have taken your guilt away from you and will clothe you with festive robes” (Zach 3:4).

To adorn ourselves with these festive clothes is to become Christ-like –to serve the world with sacrificial love –to care for the poor, feed those who are hungry, seek those who are lost, care for the sick, and love our enemy.

There is much suffering at this time. It will be one of the hardest and loneliest Christmases for so many. Let us remember that we who are made in the image of God are called to put on Christ. We are called to clothe ourselves in the true garments of Christmas (this can be in addition to our ugly Christmas sweaters of course) and go into the world to serve with Christ’s sacrificial love. This is how we can truly adorn this holiday and spread the joy of the Christmas season. 

Andrew Gluntz

Alethia Placencia (in collaboration with Nathan Placencia)

Publications Student Leader

I am a senior at the University of Kentucky studying philosophy and microbiology. I love hiking, staying active, and enjoying great books and food! Above all, I love the family OCF has given me. Whatever your story may be, there is a place for you in this community! Reach out to learn more about OCF or if you would like to contribute to the blog! publicationsstudent@ocf.net

The Simplest, Littlest Things

The Simplest, Littlest Things

If you looked at my 2020 planner in January, you would see back-to-back classes, club meetings, assignments, and exams, as well as vacations, road trips, summer camp, and OCF events lined up for the year. 

That planner was basically useless a few months later. By March, as we all know, plans were postponed, with some eventually leading to cancellation. As someone who loves being on-the-go with an endless to-do list, it was difficult to feel thankful when I realized I wasn’t going to be living the 2020 I envisioned and planned for at the beginning of the year. 

When the initial shutdown occurred, I moved back in with my parents. Emotions were heightened: I was frustrated with the transition to remote learning, stressed because I simultaneously became IT, secretary, barber, chef (not a brilliant one, might I add), and chauffeur as soon as I parked in the garage at my parents’ home. I was disappointed that I couldn’t physically attend church, saddened by having to postpone or cancel plans, and distraught at the sight of the world amid the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic. As I created a new routine and schedule, I gave myself two options: sulk around in my sorrows or search for joy. It took me some time, but I chose to search for joy, and that’s when my attitude suddenly snapped together. 

Being back at home with my family allowed me to do things I regretted not doing prior to moving out in 2018, or doing things I missed doing with them while at UCSB. 

My mom attempted to teach me how to cook her Arab recipes. 

My dad and I visited our family vineyards more frequently, allowing us to breathe fresh air that felt stripped away when wearing a mask. 

My older sister and I bonded and spent more quality time together than we probably ever have in our lives. 

My education was (and still is) quite literally at my fingertips in a virtual world through my laptop.

Most importantly, my God is always surrounding me.

As challenging as it felt in the beginning, I found that it was the simplest, littlest things that I should have been more grateful for all along: my family, friends and community, my home, food, education, and faith. 

In a chaotic world that has felt like it’s crumbling this year, we should remember to be grateful to God and what He blesses us with, to be grateful for the plan He writes out for us, rather than trying to write it for ourselves. In the words of St. Basil the Great, 

“When you sit down to eat, pray. When you eat bread, do so thanking Him for being so generous to you. If you drink wine, be mindful of Him who has given it to you for your pleasure and as a relief in sickness. When you dress, thank Him for His kindness in providing you with clothes. When you look at the sky and the beauty of the stars, throw yourself at God’s feet and adore Him who in His wisdom has arranged things in this way. Similarly, when the sun goes down and when it rises, when you are asleep or awake, give thanks to God, who created and arranged all things for your benefit, to have you know, love, and praise their Creator.”

Andrew Gluntz

Jeanine Kaileh

Southwest Regional Student Leader

I am a 3rd year biopsychology major at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I enjoy cooking, baking, reading, journaling, and tatreezing (traditional Palestinian embroidery). I’m serving on the Student Leadership Board as the Southwest Regional Student Leader for my second year and love OCF with all of my heart!

Finding Fellowship Across the Sea

Finding Fellowship Across the Sea

 Leaving Greece to come to America for college, I had no idea how I would maintain my faith without having the ‘church’ around me – I was scared of my exposure to different religions and denominations because I had never experienced that before. In Greece, I found it uncommon to have religion-related differences. While I grew up in a God-centered family, I never questioned why I was Orthodox. Upon living in America, I found myself beginning to challenge many concepts and ideas I perhaps took for granted. Becoming a part of OCF, I was able to find a community with the resources to help me with these new questions.

It wasn’t until an entire year of college had passed that I randomly found out about OCF from a friend at church who invited me to a regional retreat. Let me tell you, I was a bit skeptical in the beginning knowing nothing about the organization. At that same point in time, I had been talking with my Russian friend about starting a club to unite all the Orthodox students on our campus, since we did not have anything like that yet. After researching the work of OCF on their website, I was genuinely fascinated. My first thought was, “we don’t have that in Greece.” Fast forward a day later and both my Russian friend and I registered for the retreat, which was coming up the following week. Immediately after our experience at the retreat, we started our club on campus as an OCF Chapter!

Everything happened so fast. I was so happy and excited to be part of a community where I could be 100% myself and not feel judged about my beliefs. I would have never imagined the blessings that OCF has brought to my life. I have gotten to meet people I can have fun with and connect with on a spiritual level. There is so much meaning in friendship and an even deeper connection when you share the same values and beliefs with someone. I didn’t even have that in Greece!

OCF opened the door for me to be with people who can understand and help me when I need advice or guidance. Through OCF, I’ve been able to participate in a Real Break Trip to Texas, a YES day, and other retreats . Ever since I learned about OCF, I went to all events I could! Real Break in Texas this past March was a life-changing experience. I got to serve with like-minded people knowing that we all chose to be there and serve. We worked to provide a home for someone who lost it due to hurricane Harvey. It was a very humbling experience I will never forget, alongside the program’s amazing leaders that brought all the fun! It is safe to say that OCF has been the best part of college.

Eirini

Eirini Symeonidou
(Ειρήνη Συμεωνίδου)

Berea OCF Chapter Leader

Eirini Symeonidou is an international student from Thessaloniki, Greece and goes to Berea College in Kentucky. She is a junior majoring in Agriculture and minoring in Sustainability and Environmental Studies. She is also a farmer at the college’s organic farm and loves spending time outdoors and going to the beach (when in Greece)! Eirini is a founding member of her college’s OCF chapter and loves to organize events and activities.

Living and Loving Through Our Crosses

Living and Loving Through Our Crosses

No matter who you are, you have experienced some sort of struggle in your life. You may have asked yourself: why is God allowing this to happen to me? Fr. Calinic Berger gave a beautiful homily (1:39:15) on this topic focusing on the verse: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” [Matthew 16:24]. He explained how a cross is an unavoidable challenge God allows for those He loves. We can allow ourselves to become resentful or choose for it to bring us closer to Him. 

While in Romania last spring for Real Break (where we almost got locked out of the US… but that’s a story for another time), I learned about Fr. George Calciu (1925-2006). Fr. George was a Romanian priest living under Communist rule who boldly dared to preach The Gospel and bring hope to the Romanian people. Because of this, he was imprisoned and suffered through horrendous torture, some of which was “1984-style mind control experiments,” for twenty-one years. Fr. George eventually escaped to the United States where one of our trip leaders, Fr. Robert Miclean, was blessed to know him. Fr. Robert told us how Fr. George not only forgave his tormentors and prayed for them, but also he thanked them for bringing him closer to Christ. Fr. George was given a cross that he bore with such grace and humility. (For those who would like to read more of his story: http://www.pravoslavie.ru/46636.html). 

Here in America, we thankfully do not have to fear torture for our faith, but we still all have crosses to bear. This is not to make us angry and frustrated, but for the reason Fr. George saw: to bring us closer to God. Hearing this story in Romania was deeply humbling and solidified my belief that God uses everything for good. 

One experience that comes to mind is when my baby sister was diagnosed with a tumor. I am the oldest of six kids and had prayed and prayed for a sister. After four amazing brothers, God blessed me with a sister a month before I turned 13. However, before she turned 6 months old, the doctors found a rare tumor near her eye. Only around 300 people ever had suffered this type of tumor, and we were scared we would lose her or that she would have brain damage or be blinded. Her tumor miraculously went away, but for 6 years, it was a fearful and uncertain time of traveling 9 hours to MD Anderson in Houston. Our church family completely enveloped us with love, offering their homes to my parents while they stayed in Texas and taking care of their other five kids back in Kansas. A fruit of this cross regarding my sister’s health is now considering people family who I otherwise might not have known. We have even been gifted the opportunity to open our arms and share love with others going through health crises. 

These two stories are crosses that are outwardly visible, but crosses can also be more internal. A friend of mine felt disconnected, lonely, and deeply insecure during middle school and parts of high school. This was a time guided by low self-worth, but she realized that this experience formed her into a more inclusive, empathetic individual. Because of it, she has grown into the person she needed during that time and is able to connect on a deeper level with other young people currently going through similar struggles. 

We must remember not to compare our struggles to others’ and to rely on God’s grace to bring us towards the ultimate goal: salvation. Whatever your personal cross may be, know that you are not alone in your journey. We are together in the Body of Christ. May we all learn from examples like Fr. George as we strive to stay on the path towards Christ. 

Anna Spencer

is a senior at Kansas State University studying Nutrition & Health. She loves getting to know people, reading, traveling, eating good food, and anything outdoors (if it is not cold). She is Real Break Student Leader this year and would love it if you came to Real Break office hours (Time TBD) later this semester!

Why Apply?

Why Apply?

Why Apply by Andrew Gluntz

It seems weird that only a year ago, I was staring at my computer screen trying to write my SLB application. I was nervous, sure. I didn’t know if I could manage the work. I didn’t really know what I had to offer to the board, and I certainly couldn’t tell you three reasons why I was fit to be an RSL (hint: this will be important when you’re writing your app). I didn’t even have a solid professional reference. But what I did have was two years of amazing experiences in OCF. I had an incredibly supportive chapter that I had helped lead my sophomore year. I had been to two College Conferences and a retreat. I had friends I had made through OCF, random small group leaders who became my people (spoiler alert: OCF gives you friends). And lucky for me, I had two role models showing me exactly what serving the church on the SLB looked like.

 I’m sure anyone on the board could tell you all the great things about being a servant leader, the amazing community and support of other young, Orthodox leaders, and all the great times we have when we’re together. You’ve heard it. I’ve probably said it. You can most definitely hear it again if you ask (and you might not even have to). So today I’m going to tell you all the crummy things about being on the SLB.

  • Coordinating meetings across four time zones is a NIGHTMARE. Working with people who are just waking up when you’re having lunch is the most frustrating thing ever. Your free time never lines up. EST is stuck in my head forever.
  • Goodbyes suck. And when you’ve spent a week praying, working, and laughing alongside your best friends you met a week ago, they really suck.
  • Thanks to Google Drive and Slack, I have ANOTHER thing to procrastinate with when I really should be doing homework. I know, OCF work is better than homework, but unfortunately, I can’t put midterms on pause just because it’s for church (maybe I can get an exception?)
  • Let’s just say time zones exist for a reason. When you haven’t seen your friends in months and the closest you’ll ever be is a five-hour plane ride away, it’s heartbreaking when you realize SLI is eight months away.
If you’ve held on to this terrible monologue this long, I have a feeling you’ve got what it takes. Stamina is a given. Determination helps a lot too, especially when the odds of pulling off an event are seriously stacked against you. You must love OCF a lot if you were even mildly entertained by this, so that’s another step in the right direction. And if you’re reading this in the first place, you want to serve. You want to get involved, and you want to be a steward of your talents. You know that God is calling you to serve His Church, and you know OCF has impacted you in so many ways and you know you want to step up.

So, apply. Don’t apply because I told you to (but you should apply). Don’t apply because your friends are applying (but you should encourage your friends to apply). Don’t apply because you want to get cool t-shirts (but you should design some cool merch for us). Don’t even apply because it sounds like fun (but I can guarantee, it will be fun).

Don’t apply because you think you can afford to give yourself over to Christ’s calling in your life. Apply because you can’t afford not to. 

You get the drift.

Apply for the board.

Andrew Gluntz

Andrew Gluntz

Great Lakes Regional Student Leader

Andrew is the current student leader residing over the Great Lakes region, and is next year’s SLB Chairman. Andrew goes to THE Ohio State University and is a Chemical Engineering major. In his free time, Andrew enjoys cooking, swimming, and playing music. He is also ambidextrous! His favorite saint is  Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnika. If you have any questions for Andrew feel free to reach out to him at greatlakesstudent@ocf.net    

Elevator Pitch

Elevator Pitch

by Evyenia Pyle

A couple years ago in Sunday school, my mom, who was our teacher, challenged the class to give an elevator pitch about Orthodoxy. We were asked to come up with a 30-second pitch that might spark someone’s interest in the church.. I never thought too far into it. I think I used Psalm 135 in high school to say that if His mercy endures forever, that is a comfort and reassurance. It wasn’t until a recent OCF meeting at my school that I was asked a new question. “Why are you Orthodox?” My answer was that back in November of 2000 my parents allowed me to get dunked under water and that was that. The discussion leader didn’t think it was as funny as I did but nudged me further and said, “Okay, but why are you Orthodox today?” Why am I Orthodox today? I could give my elevator pitch, but at the time my elevator pitch didn’t make sense. I didn’t know what to say. 

I was sitting there thinking, there are few times I can be rendered speechless and this was one of them. Then I realized why I was Orthodox. “I hit rock bottom” I said. Everyone looked at me. “I had to hit rock bottom, to realize that I needed to choose Orthodoxy.” Now at the time I didn’t have the time to share what that meant. I have had a few days to reflect and I wanted to tell other OCF people about my experience. Rock bottom does not mean I was sitting in a corner crying rocking back and forth not knowing what to do, I mean I did that, but way before rock bottom. Rock bottom was when I realized there was nothing else that could fill my heart like God. I was trying to find anything to self-medicate and fill this hole in my heart. I was searching for a love that I couldn’t find surrounding myself with friends, strangers, family, and the only thing that could fill the hole was not on my mind. It was God. Everyone has their struggles in life, and while my specific struggles are beyond the scope of this post, I’d like to share my thought process with you.

I needed to start to pray, but I didn’t know where to start, but if I could just say the Jesus prayer, maybe that would help. So over and over again I said the Jesus prayer until the words started to sink in, and then it hit me. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner”. Have mercy on me the sinner. I went from that to the pre-communion prayer, “I believe O Lord and I confess that you are truly the Christ who did come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.” It was then that I thought about St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 4, that we are the garbage of the world, but we are everything in the eyes of God. I looked in the mirror at that moment and said, “I am the garbage of the world, but I am everything in the eyes of God”. In that moment I felt myself begin to cry. As the sudden realization that as the first among sinners, the garbage of the world, and the sinner God still loved me to an extent I could never imagine. God still loved me, a broken and hurt soul, because in His eyes I am everything. I thought about John 3:17 where it says, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” Not only did that help me remember that God loves me, but that He doesn’t want to punish us, He wants to save and love us. Then I looked up at my icon wall and I saw my icon of the Good Shepherd. I have two versions of this icon, of course I have the one with Jesus holding the sheep, but then I have another one where Jesus is carrying a man. At that moment I knew that Christ would carry me while I was broken. 

  

The overwhelming emotion that I experienced of being loved by the One who is love is something indescribable. The distractions of social media and earthly cares that I used to hide my own brokenness never lasted. It was like putting a band-aid on during open heart surgery to stop the bleeding. It didn’t hold and it would never hold. The only thing that filled my heart and healed it was Christ. The only person who would always truly love me even at my worst was Christ. So, there I was, at rock bottom, in my room, waiting for an answer, to discover that I had it all along. If you asked me today what my elevator pitch is for Orthodoxy, I would tell you that it is the most healing medicine there is. The Church is the greatest hospital in which to realize that in my brokenness, Christ will still love me. Even if I was the garbage of the world, even though I was the sinner, and the first among sinners, God sees me as His perfect creation. How could I have forgotten something so fundamental to our faith. Why do I choose Orthodoxy? I choose Orthodoxy because it is through my faith in Christ that I can deal with whatever life throws at me. It is through the most healing hospital of Christ that I can be beautifully broken and put together by God. I choose Orthodoxy because I can be broken, and I can be the garbage of the world, but no matter what, I am everything in the eyes of God.
Evyenia Pyle

Evyenia Pyle

Publications Student Leader

Hi, I am Evyenia Pyle, and I am the publications student this year! I am in my second year of college studying speech and hearing sciences! I play 12 instruments as of right now, and in my free time I play with my dog. I am really excited about this upportunity. Never hesitate to reach out with questions, comments, or if you are interested in writing a blog! publicationsstudent@ocf.net

Serve With Your Light

Serve With Your Light

In the Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare there is a quote that says, “How far that candle shines his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.” Today’s post isn’t going to be, dare I say, typical. I want to talk about the opportunities we have to serve in OCF. Our theme this month, as has been reiterated over and over again, is John 1:5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Shakespeare got one thing right here, and maybe he wasn’t trying to use an Orthodox perspective, but we too believe that the world today has darkness, but the best way to keep the light shining, is to shine our own light. Now you may be thinking, “Um, I am in college, I don’t have the money/resources to do good deeds. Guess what!? OCF can give you everything you need in an easy two step process. 

First Step: Find an OCF YES Day or Retreat near you by clicking this link https://www.ocf.net/events/

Second Step: Register! (Don’t forget to show up! I guess there are three steps…)

What does a YES Day or Retreat have to do with service and good deeds?

YES (Youth Equipped to Serve) Days are an amazing one-day program endorsed by OCF and the offered by FOCUS North America (https://focusnorthamerica.org/) where students gather at a church and complete a service project of some kind. For example, last year I attended the Chicago YES Day. We went to a fast food restaurant and bought a ton of food and handed it out to people on the street and talked with them. It was really cool to hear people’s stories, even if they were just wanting a snack waiting for the bus. To see people be affected by what we did, was an incredible experience. I know I tend to forget how fortunate I am. I have my own car, and a roof over my head, and some people didn’t even have a jacket on a cold October day. People asked us where we were from, and we were given the opportunity to share our faith. Some people had heard of Orthodoxy, and some said they would even try to go to the local church that was hosting us! This truly lifted our spirits, and warmed my heart in places I didn’t know were getting cold. 

 

YES Day Chicago 2018

Last November at the Midwest Fall Retreat we made blankets. What does that have to do with good deeds? Well, we made tie blankets, with cute patterns, and sent them to a pregnancy resource center for babies. Blankets are important because babies being swaddled and wrapped in something gives them a sense of security. Pregnancy resource centers are organizations that help mothers who have difficult decisions to make when they become pregnant. Some mothers lose support from people they relied on and need help. They can go to the pregnancy resource center and receive assistance, baby food, diapers, and blankets. The blankets are important because for a mother that feels like they are losing control, the blanket isn’t just a sense of security for the baby anymore, but for the mom as well, who sees that her baby is being taken care of, and is comfortable.

Midwest Fall Retreat 2018

Last March at the Central Illinois District Retreat, the service event involved going to a place called Salt ‘n Light Ministry. This organization allows people to work and gain store credit to buy groceries, clothing, furniture, basically anything someone might need. We had students stocking fruits and vegetables, printing price tags, sorting clothes, and lots of other chores to help out. This ministry provides people with the dignity in knowing that they aren’t receiving handouts, but are reaping the fruits of their labor.

Central Illinois District Retreat 2019

So, with all those examples of things I did last year, I now am urging you to get involved, and to allow our light to shine as a “good deed shines in a weary world.” You never know when you could be the person to help someone learn to shine their own light. Sign up for an OCF event today! I promise you won’t regret it!

Evyenia Pyle

Evyenia Pyle

Publications Student

Hi, I am Evyenia Pyle, and I am the publications student this year! I am in my second year of college studying speech and hearing sciences! I play 12 instruments as of right now, and in my free time I play with my dog. I am really excited about this upportunity. Never hesitate to reach out with questions, comments, or if you are interested in writing a blog! publicationsstudent@ocf.net 

Let’s Talk about What Went Down at College Conference

Let’s Talk about What Went Down at College Conference

Let’s set the scene: we had just finished breakfast after fully enjoying the treat that are the breakfast potatoes of the St. Iakovos Retreat Center. We settle down in in our seats, and we are suddenly attending a gospel concert starring none other than the wonderful Fr. Barnabas Powell. Fr Powell began to sing loudly in front of the whole conference, and to play along I exclaimed a loud and faithful, “TESTIFY,” which was followed by uproarious laughter. Let this conference begin I thought to myself.

Fr. Barnabas concludes his song and after the students’ excited applause he turns to us and in a serious and focused tone, says:

“If you do not know the identity of Jesus Christ, you will never know who you truly are.” 

What followed was the stunned silence of a room of people doubting the knowledge of their own identity and the identity of Jesus Christ. This statement set the tone and topic for the conference, “Who do you say that I am?” from the Gospel of Matthew.

As a group, we collectively gathered our scuba gear knowing fully well that at this conference we were diving DEEP into our identity and the identity of Christ. You may ask, what do we mean when we say God, and what is the identity of Jesus Christ? We as Orthodox understand God as the uncreated Being, the Creator of all, who reveals Himself as three persons in the Holy Trinity in full and complete communion, as inseparable as the fire of three candles sharing a flame.

Thankfully, Christ tells us who He is, He just flat out tells us so there is no ambiguity:

“I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Therefore, we know that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Now what does this have to do with our own identity? In order for us to fully know ourselves and fully comprehend our identity, we have to begin to understand that Christ is the truth of life, its purpose, and its instiller of purpose concurrently. Christ is our nexus and the face, the icon by which we can know God, who lived and breathed on earth as we do, the infinity who became finite for us.

But why should we even care about knowing Christ and knowing ourselves? It’s because we’re diseased–sorry guys but it had to be said. We live in a fallen world and a fallen state, and the difference between knowing God and not knowing Him is the difference between wholeness and emptiness. Every time we are longing for home, we are hungry, we are thirsty, we cause pain, and feel pain we understand this emptiness and feel our tangible distance from God.

How do we begin to know God? Fr. Jannakos helped us answer that question. He taught us that we begin to know Him by imitating Him, by learning to tame the passions and working to attain the virtues of the Holy Spirit.

My spiritual father described the taming of the passions to me in the most beautiful way I have ever heard it, and I want to share it with you:

“Imagine the passions as an untamed fire, it grows, it spreads, and it causes destruction in everything it grows through. It is so big, it is unignorable and wild. Our job is to take those passions and tame them and (pointing to the light in the kandyli) turn them into the tame and beautiful flame of the candle that gives us warmth and light.”

This is the way of the Orthodox, becoming LIKE Christ in His perfect and sinless self. But how can we take this lofty theology and bring it down to the nitty gritty of the everyday life of a college student? To that, we turn to the expertise of Mother Gabriella, the abbess of Holy Dormition Monastery in Michigan.

Mother Gabriella, amidst her talk on the things she has learned as an abbess, and as an immigrant to the United States from Romania. She taught me how to incorporate small lessons in discipline and asceticism into my daily life. Some of her pro tips:

  • Wake up exactly when your alarm clock sounds.
  • Get to church earlier (1/2 way during matins). It shows respect and devotion to God.
  • Take a few moments every day to be quiet.
  • Clean up and put your things where they belong.
  • Control your diet.

Ultimately, these tips can help you with the discipline needed to resist temptation. The most important thing in struggle is to never struggle alone–struggle with God because alone you cannot do it. Lastly, the piece of advice that can be applied to be a better human being is to just let things go. Forgive people. You never know what they are going through on the inside. Anger is the punishment we give ourselves for someone else’s mistake. Let. It. Go.

College Conference Midwest 2019 was a blast. I got to meet a group of new people, and really get to know what they are thinking about and going through on college campuses. I got to catch up with old friends and have new adventures. College Conference is the place where you can learn and be strengthened in your faith and learn how to better yourself spiritually.

This last conference, Fr. Jonathan Bannon was able to bring an array of relics and I was able to physically meet a new slew of saints at this conference. So not only did I make more friends but spiritual ones as well.

I urge you all to continue participating if you have and encourage those who haven’t just come and try it. Let your guard down, open your mind, and learn at College Conference.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go…

Oh, the Places You’ll Go…

My names Simeon and I go to County College of Morris in NJ. My Real Break experience started at the age of ten; surprising right? No they didn’t let a ten-year-old go on Real Break, but at the age of ten, I sent my oldest brother off on his first Real Break trip to Guatemala. It was the first of many trips to the airport, sending my siblings to exotic locations: Alaska, Mexico, Istanbul, Jerusalem. But it was that first trip when my brother came home that I also wanted to have an amazing experience just like him.

I was excited watching them leave, and I waited in anticipation for their amazing stories and pictures that they would share with me upon their return. They inspired me because I saw their love for Christ and their life experience grow after every trip, and I awaited an opportunity for my own trip.

For the next eight years of my life, I told my parents how excited I was to go to college, not because of the typical reasons, but because I could finally go on my own Real Break trip.

Going into my first Real Break trip I didn’t know what to expect. This was my first time flying by myself, and I had connecting flights. I was both anxious in anticipation of the fun, but also anxious because of the logistics of flying alone. But what I received in the end, in spiritual and global wisdom, I never expected, and it made any stress worth while. The joy in worshiping and working alongside some of the most dedicated college students was, for me, a life-changing experience. The camaraderie with the other students that I experience during the trip was deepened by our deep love for Christ and allowed us all to connect and become friends in a matter of minutes.

For example, on my trip to Alaska, I found myself reflection on how incredible it is to share the amazing beauty that God has blessed us with with my fellow Orthodox Christians. We were constantly surrounded by wonderful white landscapes of snow and witnessed the awe-inspiring expanses of the winter-laden forests. The opportunity to give back to the Alaskan people was uplifting and helped make the trip feel full.

The Alaskan people were appreciative of our service, and we were appreciative of the opportunity to learn more about them and their way of life. We had a lot in common with the cold–me being from New Jersey and all! Not only did we serve the Alaskan people, but we also got to participate in the Lenten services, which was so spiritually fulfilling. I came out of this trip with ten new friends, all of which I know I’ll have for the rest of my life. We all shared in each others struggles and were strengthened when we went on our respective paths. 

So you may be sitting here reading my experience thinking, “I’m glad you had a great time on your trip, but my names not Simeon, I don’t go to County College of Morris, and I’m not even from NJ. How can you guarantee I’m going to have just as great an experience?” Well you’re partially right, most likely your name isn’t Simeon, but that’s not what made my trip special. What made my trip special was the people I met, the places I visited, and the opportunity to serve. 

You can read any other Real Break story, and you’ll see how much of a fantastic time these trips are. It all starts with you, and a decision you’ll never regret.


My names Simeon Brasowski. I’m a senior at County College of Morris in NJ. I am the 2018-2019 Real Break Student Leader, and I love travelling. My favorite hobbies are hiking, socializing, and photography. If I could, I might just live outside for the rest of my life. For the socializing, I enjoy meeting new people and just talking. My friends think I’m a chatty Cathy, but it’s a hobby for me. 

If you have any questions about Real Break, please email me at realbreakstudent@ocf.net

Why Should I Stop and Smell the Flowers?

Why Should I Stop and Smell the Flowers?

This year, I attended my first OCF retreat at St. Methodios Faith & Heritage Center in New Hampshire. I went along with 25 other college students from the Northeast region of the United States.

The retreat was held on a day that was brisk but not to the point where we were freezing. We lit fires every night, went hiking through the beautiful trails behind the camp, and participated in the intimacy of divine services, including Paraklesis, Vespers, and Liturgy.

The theme of the retreat was “Smell the Flowers: The Easy Path to the Kingdom”, and our service work was the perfectly unplanned task of landscaping; we planted flowers in front of the camp’s main dining hall.

The premise of the retreat was based off of a story from the book Wounded by Love, written by St. Porphyrios of Mount Athos. Briefly, St. Porphyrios was visiting the island of Patmos at the cave where St. John received the Revelation. He was overcome with grace and happiness from the Holy Spirit and wanted to escape in solitude to fully enjoy it, yet he couldn’t because of the amount of tourists surrounding him.

St. Porphyrios stepped away from the cave, in hopes to come back at a later time and experience the Holy Spirit once more. After returning to the cave, St. Porphyrios’ prayer felt dry and empty, and he did not feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. After stepping outside of the cave of Revelation, he decided to stop and smell the flowers.

He was overcome with awe and understanding when he contemplated the beauty and miracle of creation, which he experienced when he decided to take a moment to observe the flowers. St. Porphyrios came to an understanding at that time that God does not work on our time – He works in His time.

Initially, I was nervous to go on the OCF retreat, as I am currently a catechumen for the Orthodox Church and always felt as though I knew less than those around me – those already established in their faith and knowledge of the Church. To my surprise, there were other catechumens and many other converts.

The first night those who were raised within the Orthodox Church, those who have converted to the Orthodox Church, and those going through catechumenate stayed up until hours of the morning talking about our individual journeys in Orthodoxy.

This was the first time since deciding to be a part of the Church that I was surrounded by peers who were as passionate, enthusiastic, and so inspirational with their faith in Orthodoxy as I was. Conversations of faith were like wildfire that just kept burning. In the beginning, I thought to myself, “How could I be involved in these conversations of faith when there is SO much I still don’t know?”

I was comforted by the story of St. Porphyrios. Before coming a saint, before becoming a shepherd of God, he had a second-grade education. One thing I learned on this retreat is that it’s okay to not know everything and, in a sense, we will never know everything. We are all on a continuous journey, and we all have much to learn.


This post was written by Samantha Fricke, a student at the University of Binghamton. She is a senior studying psychology.

Learning to Be an Orthodox Leader

Learning to Be an Orthodox Leader

Hello, my name is Danielle Hines! I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (the Johnstown area to be specific). I’m here to talk to you all about SLI, and my experience there this past August!

How did you hear about SLI, and how you decide to come?

I heard about SLI from college conference 2017 and further from Caroline Mellekas (SLB Chairman). I was interested in going, but when summer came around I went to camp at the Antiochian Village for PLC, I was still on the fence about it. I was nervous that I wouldn’t know anyone there. Luckily, I met Peter Karos (College Confrence Midwest Leader), and he and Caroline, convinced me to attend saying I would love it and I would have an amazing time.

What did you want to get out of SLI, did you end up getting that?

I wanted to learn to be a better Orthodox leader and to learn more about my faith in a different way then I have before. Yes, I did get these things out of SLI and even more. I learned that working alone is sometimes the most difficult thing to do, and it’s ok to ask for help. I learned so much about praying and got a different perspective on generosity in the church.

What was your favorite session, what did you learn, and why did you like it?

My favorite session from SLI was Fr Stephen Vernak’s (SLI Spiritual Advisor) on Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom. I learned a new perspective on being still and prayer isn’t a big gesture we need to do all the time, and praying can be as simple as just crossing ourselves or saying morning prayers. One of his quotes that stuck with me and was, “We should try live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could rewritten by looking us.” Another point from the book he focused on was our relationship with the Lord starts with each other. He also gave us two Bible verses on stillness. Those were Exodus 14:13 and Psalm 45:11. The biggest thing I took from this talk was to find your stillness and keep calm with prayers. The reason I liked this session was it help me in an area I was really struggling as a Orthodox Christian.

Describe your favorite moment from the institute.

My favorite moment of the institute was sitting at night and talking to everyone. At one point after dinner I noticed we were all sitting, talking to each other scattered all around the retreat center, some people upstairs some people down stairs and some cooking marshmallows by the fire that was outside. And at one point, we all looked at each other and said, “Let’s go up stairs and dance!” So we danced to Arabic music, Greek music, and even learned some Russian dances as well. We all had come together, and no matter what jurisdiction we were, we all came together that night.

My second favorite moment is from the first night, when all the participants had arrived we all went into the the chapel and chanted Paraklesis after evening prayers in celebration of the Dormition of the Theotokos. It was the most beautiful thing I had heard and seen in a long time. All the students and jurisdictions worshiping together, singing the service.

What are the things that you are going to take with you as an Orthodox Leader?

The things i’m going to take with me as an Orthodox Leader is to show others the teachings of the Church through my actions, guided by my love for God. Every person is different, and might not understand them one way or the other. I’m also going to take with me being a better listener and listening to people’s thoughts and problems making sure I listen before I react.

This is my reflection on SLI I hope this gives your a perspective of what SLI is and about I hope many of you come and participate. I will definitely be coming back next year to SLI and I hope you’ll join me!

+In Christ,

Danielle Hines

 

Experience Temporality

Experience Temporality

Do you ever have one of those days in which you have so much work to do that you simply sit down and do nothing? Like, because you’re so overwhelmed, instead of chipping away at the work, you just deny that all of it exists?

Welcome to college.

In the worst solution ever contrived by young men and women–and that’s really saying something–we remove the burden of work from shoulders by denying its immediacy. We delay it, pretending as if we have all the time of the world. We crash, watch Netflix, eat a cookie (okay, several cookies), and feel better.

I think we can do the same things with our spiritual life–with our life in general, really. 

And it’s understandable, easier to understand I think–because the time period is longer. The comeuppance of our spiritual life comes when we die, and when we arrive at the final judgment. Remembering the stakes of that eventual judgment is what gives us perspective on our daily lives; understanding that what we do today affects where we end up for eternity.

Isn’t that terrifying? Like, isn’t that draw-droppingly scary? I enter shutdown mode when I just have a lot of papers and assignments to do; when faced with the Final Judgment there’s no wonder, I think, that I want to curl up in a little ball and hide in the comfort of willing ignorance.

When we forget about that ultimate moment–the moment in which our actions are measured against our purpose; what we did against what we were made to do–we are seemingly freed from the responsibility to align with our purpose. We feel, perhaps a little synthetically, the freedom that we didn’t experience when fulfilling our purpose. Without a sense of finiteness, consequence, actions, decisions–these all exist in a vacuum. They do not matter, because we can inevitably rectify them on the ever-arriving tomorrow.

Lent, I think, helps remind us of our temporality. The Lenten process is a big countdown–among other things, of course–to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. By carving out this chunk of the year to remember the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, we’re not only reminded of Christ’s sacrifice and what that means for our salvation, but we also encounter an experience of a man–Jesus Christ–understanding his daily actions, choices, and moments all within the context of his death.

We always talk about Lent as a period of preparation, and a key aspect of that period is that we know when it ends: we have work to do; and we know when the work is due and the period ends. We can shirk it like we might our schoolwork at times, but there is an ultimate end, and that finiteness is what motivates us to be the way that we should, and not crumble to our vices in the moment.

It’s important to experience, every day, our end. To know that we do not have unlimited time and unlimited tries. That’s what instills our life with meaning, drives us beyond temptations. Experiencing temporality can be hard and scary, certainly–but it’s important that we do it, else we eternally attempt to avoid who we were meant to become.

Student Leadership Board | Why Apply

Student Leadership Board | Why Apply

Ah! SLB applications are open!

This is the first year of my college career that I won’t be applying for the Student Leadership Board–it feels weird. I’ve loved my position here, made some amazing friends and ridiculous memories alike, and hopefully done some good for the parents, students, and chapter advisers that swing by the blog.

In a perfect world, I’m back for year 3. But the world ain’t perfect–it’s incredibly busy, sometimes super stressful, and full of sacrifices. I’m incredibly blessed to attend a great college–but it’s very rigorous; incredibly blessed to have rewarding jobs in my prospective field for the future–but they demand the bulk of my time.

It would be cowardly and dishonest to not stand before you today and tell you I didn’t do nearly as good of a job this year in my position as the Publications Student Leader as I should have. I didn’t do nearly as good of a job on schoolwork, actual job work, going to the gym, reading for leisure, whatever. Life overwhelmed me.

I tell you this to offer a cautionary tale: if you’re going to do something, do it right. When you apply to the Student Leadership Board, it shouldn’t be primarily that you may throw it on your resume (though it certainly doesn’t hurt). It shouldn’t be because your friends are also applying for the Board (though they should and that’d be nice). It should be because you want to help Orthodox college students get through the briar patch–you want to, and you can as well.

Being on the OCF board is mission work. We forget that sometimes: it is mission work for the Church. We are spreading Christianity, not only to those in our communities who may be interested, but also to those who were raised in the Church. Whether we grew up in the Church or only recently joined it, we are always growing into the Church, growing through the Church. As we develop, so much our relationship with the Church–we encounter new things, experience and overcome new struggles by breaching new, previously undiscovered corners of our faith.

In short, college changes us: but the Church accompanies and even guides us through that change. OCF helps the Church do just that.

Being on the Student Leadership Board places the onus of helping the Church guide students through the college change squarely on your shoulders. This is your mission. When you work as a Regional Student Leader, you organize events for, reach out to, and coordinate with all of the OCFers in your area. When you work on the Programs side of things–Real Break, College Conferences–you spend all year forming the incredible, nationwide opportunities that only places like OCF can provide. When you work on my side of things–Media, Podcast, PR, Publications–you have a daily grind of linking OCF chapters from across the nation, and unifying us all through our common struggles and successes.

But you aren’t only the agent of the mission; you are also the subject. You are in college; you change. It is, I think, a fallacy to say “I am not strong in my faith, I’m struggling so much, I can’t be on the OCF board.” Rather, joining the board only gets you closer to the process, deeper into the restorative and strengthening powers of the Church and the faith. It is work, yes–but it is also respite, joy, and salvation. That is, inherently, what I think we all experience in our faith: work, trial, tribulation, struggle–but through these fires, we grow and experience Christ.

Apply for the Student Leadership Board. Serve the mission of the Church. Struggle, grow, and encounter Christ.

Great Lent Begins | The Safety Net

Great Lent Begins | The Safety Net

Here we go, team!

The beginning of Great Lent in college is–at least for me–markedly different than how it began in high school. In high school, I lived with a bunch of people who were also awaiting Forgiveness Sunday–I believe the technical term is “family”–and as such, I felt the onset of Great Lent with each passing day. We planned out the meals; we talked about the church services; we shared our plans for fasting.

In college, it just kinda happens. You don’t have the community–or at least, most of us don’t have as strong of one–to commiserate with us about the loss of choice; to remind us of the wonderful opportunity set before us.

This is not an unfamiliar vacuum, I think–it’s the one of which we are perpetually aware, to one degree or another. “It’s tougher to be Orthodox at college,” we constantly tell our young adults–why? Because that omnipresence of Orthodox family is gone. We are “on our own.” We do not have the safety net.

As such, the onset of Lent isn’t as ground-shaking in college. The vacuum eats up the reverberations, the crash of the impact, and we are left with a world that feels perplexingly unchanged, from Friday into Monday. We have entered the most important period of the Orthodox calendar–but the world outside has just kept on spinning.

We–as we so often are as college students–are left responsible for far more of our world than we once were. We no longer feel the change because of our environment; rather, we are responsible for creating the change–both in ourselves and in our environment.

What does that mean, concretely? It means that our Lenten effort–and that’s a very intentional word: effort–has expanded. We once were responsible for fasting–from meat and dairy and television and music and the like–when we lived in the environment that supported our fast, bolstered our faith, facilitated our church attendance, limited our access to these temptations. Now, we are not only responsible for fasting. We are also responsible for the environment: sculpting our daily world to better provide that support, limit that access, facilitate that attendance. In a way, we are responsible for both walking the tightrope, and erecting the safety net below it.

The mind may immediately refute this notion. “I don’t need to erect the safety net,” the mind says. “I needed the safety net when I was younger, but I’m older now. I have a stronger will, a better resolve. I need to prove to myself, my family, my priest that I can pull off this fast without the help, the positive environment. It will count more that way, anyway.”

This, I would argue, is the temptation of the prideful mind. This mind is not interested in the fast–it’s interested in success, in esteem, in victory over the odds. Completing the fast doesn’t end with the good little Orthodox Christian, victoriously standing upright in the dramatic sunlight like the end of a movie–the fast ends with a dead and risen God. That is the victory.

As such, you could argue about how much the safety net, the supportive environment, is needed all you like. The environment helps us, strengthens our fast, sharpens our faith. I’m interested in that, regardless of the sacrifices it means I have to make–not going out to restaurants that I know have few fasting options; not attending parties that my friends will attend; making new spring break plans.

Enjoy your new responsibility; gear your new opportunity to a more productive, self-altering fast than you’ve ever experienced. It will be hard–thank God for that. It’s the hard things that make us better.

 

Faith on the Web

Faith on the Web

#Blessed.

The way we recognize and live our faith online is funny sometimes. When we post online, we have a bit more time between thinking of the message we wish to convey and executing it.

As such, we often craft the image of ourselves that we’d like to present with a lot more intention. Sometimes that can feel a little fake—but its not wrong, I think, to be deliberate in how we convey ourselves through a medium as permanent as Facebook and Instagram and Twitter.

On the same note, there’s also a renowned invincibility—or at least, a bolstering of protective factors—that we experience when we post online. It has something to do with anonymity, occasionally—but when our name is behind our words, we still enjoy the freedom from pressures that arise from being face-to-face with someone, or in a group of people. Through the Internet, we don’t have to respond right away to things, so we feel more comfortable making stronger claims; we don’t have to experience potential awkwardness in real time, and we are accordingly emboldened.

As such—and I mean this in all sincerity—social media and online interactions can be a truly excellent place to manifest our faith. I know that I’m an avid Twitter user, and very often when I’m composing a Tweet with a grateful tone, I end up reconsidering terms like “I’m thankful” or “I’m fortunate,” and often end up focusing on “I’m very blessed.” It’s a small change, but a very intentional one. The little things in my life are blessings, and thanks belong to God. I don’t think of that enough in everyday conversation; the extended time of typing out a post allows me to remember and recognize that.

It goes even deeper than that. Back to Twitter—a lot of the work I do (I’m an NFL Draft analyst) lends itself to disagreement. Disagreement, especially on social media, lends itself to arguments. Arguments breed potshots, low blows, name-calling, and other such instinctual tactics when we feel the threat of being wrong in front of others. That’s the other edge of the sword when it comes to being protected through anonymity, I suppose—most people with whom I interact online, I’ll never meet in real life. So shooting from the hip holds very few tangible consequences to me.

By that same token, however, I’m more likely to speak out when I’m upset in person, because I feel it more immediately, more viscerally. I feel as if I have less control. Through social media, I certainly feel the desire to comment on someone’s politically-charged post with my own opinions—but what good does that add to the world? And when someone gets snarky or condescending in the comments section on one of my takes, I could easily roast and embarrass them—but how does this benefit my Christian life (and their life, Christian or otherwise)?

We’re constantly told of the dangerous of interacting on social media and through the Internet—rightfully so, as it has its pitfalls and traps. We are meant to be living images of Christ, however, and we shouldn’t use the difficulties of online interactions to recuse ourselves from that responsibility. The very process of typing instead of speaking gives us time—more time to think about what we’re saying, how we’re saying it, and why we’re saying it. You have the opportunity to gear that time positively, to convey a clearer message of the Christ that lives through you. Every day, I try to take that opportunity—I hope that you do, too.

Thinking Like the Publican

Thinking Like the Publican

Image from Ted on Flickr

“Thank God, that I am not like this tax collector.”

Man, that Pharisee sounds kinda dumb, doesn’t he?

That’s always–God forgive me–one of my first thoughts when I hear the Gospel reading of this Sunday. “You knucklehead! How is it a good idea to thank God for not making you like another one of God’s creations? Dude!”

This really is one of the most extraordinary weeks that the Church gives us. A fast-free week–not following any feast day–but rather that we may “fast from our fasting,” if you will. That we may step away from the works and practices that we so often and so easily substitute for “faith,” and investigate rather our faith in God.

That’s what the publican had that the Pharisee lacked–or rather, that with which the Pharisee struggled. Faith in God.

The Pharisee still believed in God, I believe–but as the Gospel says, the Pharisee stood at the altar and prayed “with himself.” He didn’t pray with Christ, or with the saints, with the Theotokos, as we as Christians are called to do.

The Pharisee prayed with himself because he had faith in himself–not in God. He had faith in his tithes, so he prayed to his tithes; he had faith in his fasting, so he prayed to his fasting. He gave his tithes and fasting and church attendance–his works–praise. He sanctified his works in the temple with his words; he exalted them, because he believed through them he had been saved.

The publican, as we know, had faith in God. He didn’t turn to the liturgical services, the hymnography and the psalms, the works of fasting and tithing as the source of mercy. He spoke from his heart, plainly to God, beseeching that God save him. The publican was only interested in that which mattered: being with God by being saved through Him. He didn’t have works; he had faith.

The parable of the publican and the Pharisee is so powerful, and thank God we use it to begin our fasting period. But when we hear it, we must be wary, less fall into the Pharisee’s very trap:

“Thank God, that I am not like the Pharisee.”

Uh-oh.

“Thank God, that I am not like the Pharisee. I really have a relationship with God, I speak to God directly–like the publican–and I don’t get caught up in making sure I pray every day, making sure I fast when I should, making sure I attend church. I feel spiritual–I feel a connection with something divine–and I don’t get all caught up in the trappings of the Church.”

We forget, sometimes, that the Pharisees are/were the “good” guys. At least, they weren’t actively bad–they were men of faith in God, but often too entrenched in the faith they knew to recognize the New Testament and the coming of the Messiah. The Pharisees modeled good behavior to the faithful: things like church attendance, fasting, and tithing fall squarely under that category.

The traditions of the Church and practices taught by the fathers aren’t bad–they’re good! They’re powerful and necessary and rejuvenating, but only when they serve their purpose: bringing us closer to God, that we may be saved by Him. When they are done for their own sakes–or worse, for the sake of our self-assuredness and pride–they become noxious distractions.

Avoid this week and this Lent the Pharisee’s trap–do not find yourself judging or boasting in either direction. The publican is our example: in humility and without fear, doing whatever he could to draw closer to God.

College Conference 2017 | Missing Out

College Conference 2017 | Missing Out

It was supposed to be my third College Conference in a row.

And, I mean, it was. I was technically at the Antiochian Village, with other college students, during the conference. However, I spent most of it holed up in my dark room, feeling like garbage.

Pro tip: if you want to enjoy an OCF event, do not get sick.

Let’s take something solid out of a situation that involved some major headaches, at least five boxes of tissues, and a metric ton of green tea: I can now write a reflection for you about what it’s like to not go to College Conference.

1) Food

I’m sure you know what it’s like to have all of your friends hanging out without you, because you’re super cool. But I had buddies back at the conference I hadn’t seen in upwards of two years, and all of the shenanigans into which we would usually get, they enjoyed without me. That, obviously, was not very fun.

One of the greatest aspects of College Conference is meal time, in my opinion, because you sit in little eight-seat nuclei scattered across the room and just chill. Some meals you’re sitting with all the people you know and the people they know, reminiscing and inside-joking and the like; other meals you’re with seven folks you’ve never met before, and you’re bonding and laughing and it’s all goodness.

It’s very common, in my opinion, for someone to hear about College Conference for the first time–small groups, keynote speaker, workshops speakers, church and more church–and miss that. They miss not only the big chunks of social time built into the schedule, but also that marginal social time that’s just as enjoyable. I also missed the time, mostly because I was gross and food tasted gross, but the point still stands: I missed that wonderful, carefree, responsibility-less time with friends. If you didn’t make it to college conference, you missed it as well.

2) Words

Missing the speakers wasn’t something I anticipated hitting me as hard as it did, but here we are. I’ve always loved the speakers, but it felt like my takeaways were only a few quick quotes and maybe some general themes. I wish I’d take away more, but often that’s all I get.

At least, I felt as if that was all I got.

Having missed a solid amount of the talks, I’ve discovered that the talks do a lot more for the listener than providing information. In fact, I’d argue that the content of the talks isn’t so much meant to be remembered–rather, it’s the engagement with the material that’s truly valuable. It’s not about knowing what was said, but rather hearing what’s said and interacting with it; listening attentively; bringing the focus of our mind to a higher plane that it would otherwise be.

I think about what we hear before the Gospel during liturgy: “Let us attend!” But after the Gospel, we don’t hear “Make sure you remember what just happened!” Then we get the sermon, which doesn’t reiterate the Gospel to ensure we remember it, but helps us engage with the readings through interpretations, stories of the church fathers, and the like.

I missed the mental work of being in the talks; of being forced to think of bigger and better things.

3) Not Words

Admittedly, I could have done a far better job with this in my little room at the conference center–sitting in silence and being still. However, I was sick and grumpy, so I watched a lot of Netflix and found other ways to busy myself instead.

College Conference is smarter than to try and force silence and stillness on you–that’s not how silence and stillness works. It’s extremely voluntary–you cannot quiet all of the worries, stresses, and thoughts bouncing between your ears if you want to be embroiled in those thoughts. Trust me–I fall victim to that issue all of the time.

But College Conference does create that contemplative space for those who want it–in the chapels, the museum area, wherever. Often, the greatest obstacle standing between us and stillness is creating a space for that stillness in our busy lives–but College Conference offers that space, which encourages us to capitalize on it, as it is rare and valuable.

With my cold, I was far too self-pitying to find meditative silence; at home, not attending the conference, I’m sure the madness of life would have stifled me just as effectively.

If you went to College Conference, awesome. I hope you didn’t take for granted all the stuff I was sorely missing this year. It’s a holy time, that blesses us with many gifts–some we recognize; some we don’t.

If you didn’t go to College Conference this year–like me–you missed out. But I won’t be making the same mistake next winter break; and I hope you don’t, either.

Feast of Saint Herman | Relating to the Saints

Feast of Saint Herman | Relating to the Saints

A blessed feast of Saint Herman to you all!

One of my favorite things about December is the feasts of the saints. In my OCA church populated by Russians, Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th is a cups hand to microphone big deal. One week later, on December 13th, we have the feast of Saint Herman–and we’re blessed to have his relics in my parish.

It’s such a great blessing to have these feast days in the month of December–not only because they give me a few extra liturgies in my familiar home parish, but because they help us prepare us for the Nativity of our Lord.

But standing in church, specifically today, on the feast of Saint Herman, reminds me how important it is to cultivate a relationship with the saints…

By Ted (St. Herman of Alaska) via Wikimedia Commons

aaand how much I struggle with that.

Developing that conversation with the saints has always been such a great struggle of mine–if you haven’t experienced that, that’s a blessing in and of itself. I think it requires good humility to develop that relationship with the saints, and humility is something with which I certainly struggle.

A relationship with the saints immediately implies a need for help–a need that I undeniably have, but continuously endeavor to deny. Often, my approach to the saints reminds me of my father trying to fix the plumbing when I was kid: he didn’t really have any idea what he was doing, but he was going to figure it out on his own. Forget actually calling a plumber–even YouTube was too great of a crutch. He was smarter than the pipes.

Saints have figured it out. Saints know what’s up. Saints have the blueprint.

But a prideful mind insists that taking someone else’s blueprint is cheating; is a falsehood. It pokes holes in each saint story: take Saint Herman, who was a young, promising monk whose ideal life ended up leading him to a remote island in Alaska–that doesn’t feel very analogous to my life at all. Or Saint Nicholas, who was out punching heretics and sneaking bags of gold into people’s boots. Don’t get me wrong, I’m down to punch a heretic, I just think I might get arrested afterward, and my mom would be so mad…

But this is where we get fooled by the blueprint metaphor. The saints’ lives aren’t put before us so that we can do what they did, like robots learning a code; mimicking their every action like a step-by-step instruction set for Heaven entry and eternal rejoicing. The saints’ lives don’t show us the “what”–they don’t even show us the “how,” really. They show us what happens when you firmly, unflinchingly, devotedly believe in the “why.”

Again, action without intention is animatronic. There is no value in doing exactly what the saints did because you want the results they achieved. That’s not to say we can’t employ the strategies of the saints, learn lessons from their examples–but to assume the saints drew a map to the Kingdom is a mistake.

The saints lived lives fueled by their love for Christ. And because each saint followed different paths (St. Herman from the monastery, St. Elizabeth from royalty, St. Moses the Black from crime, St. Mary of Egypt from prostitution), we know it isn’t about the exact minutiae of their lives. It’s about that one thing that was common between them all: the love for Christ.

As such, if we struggle to relate with one unique saint, maybe that’s okay. But if we struggle relating to at least one of the vast numbers of saints–a demographic defined by their common love for Christ–then it is certainly time to look inward.

Thank God for the lives of the saints, given to us by the Church as examples of faith in all of its forms. Thank God that we have the opportunity to investigate, participate in that depth of faith. No matter how we may struggle to form that relationship with the saints, we must recognize that they are the men and women who loved Christ harder than anyone else. If that is truly our goal, then these are our allies, our mentors, and our guides. We do not wish to become them; we wish to become like them.

 

Preparing for Finals

Preparing for Finals

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the end of the road. The boss level. The final countdown.

Final exams.

Before you spiral into a pit of self-loathing, as you lament the classes you skipped and readings you skimmed in weeks long passed, we’re here to help.

Finals are an unbelievably stressful time, and it’s quite easy–almost encouraged, even–to throw everything out of wack. Schedules, sleep patterns, priorities, diet–in the mad dash that is studying for finals, the college culture often demands from us more than we can reasonably give. That disparity upsets our natural balance and our perspective.

As such, let’s take a deep breath and break down the best ways to stay sane in finals season.

1) Pray

As is rightfully so, prayer is a good first step in everything. Of course, prayer in situations like these can be quite difficult. We don’t want to step in front of our icons (a location that we, perhaps, have attended only infrequently in recent months) and suddenly approach God, the wish-granter and gift-giver, and submit our requests in a moment of need. Prayer is a relationship and a conversation, not an order given to a waiter.

For what, then do we pray?

Well, we still should not be afraid of asking for what we need–but we must recognize that we do not need to pass these exams. No matter how crucial they may be to our degree/occupation.

What we need is help–and that’s in everything, not just finals. In our fallen world with our fallen nature and our fallen habits, we need God’s help if we are ever to grow closer to Him, to live a life full of faith and worship.

As such, we have to be sure that we’re taking our finals, and hoping to do very well in our finals, in an effort to live a Christian life. If we wish for success on our finals for the sake of our pride–to get better grades than our neighbor–or for our greed–to get a high-paying job and make tons of money to hoard and treasure–then really it would be quite better for us to pray to God that He help us struggle and fail our finals, that we may fall away from this sin, this temptation.

That brings us nicely to our second point.

2) Contextualize

A final exam is, plainly, words on a piece of paper. So is a final paper.

This piece of paper will have more significant ramifications than most pieces of paper, assuredly. It will help define your grade, which will help define your GPA, which will help define your prospects to future employers/grad schools/internships/etc.

I do not say this to frighten you. Rather the opposite.

You will take one set of final exams per semester/quarter. That’s four or five exams across an 11-15 week stretch. This will happen perhaps 8 to 12 times in your life, on average.

Every Sunday, once a week, for the history of your life time and the millennia that preceded it, the Body and Blood of Christ is sacrificed for the sins of the world and all mankind. Your participation in this sacrament will help define you. It will help define your salvation.

Taking these final exams is, simply, not the most important thing you will do this month–it’s not the most important thing you will do this weekAnd when you consider your prayer life, your opportunities to love your neighbor, well…it’s likely not the most important thing you’ll do on the very day.

Now of course, this does not mean we dedicate no time to the exam–we still can and rightfully should. Unless your vocation is a monastic one, then significant chunks of your day will be devoted to staying afloat in this secular world. That’s okay.

But we cannot let the relatively sporadic nature of final exams fool us into believing they are more important than the more consistent occurrence of our sacramental life. The two events are simply on different planes.

“It’s not the end of the world” feels like a cliche. It really is one. But, in this case, it bears a significant weight: when the end of the world does indeed come (ah!), how you did on your final exams won’t matter much at all.

3) Choose

Knowing that we have asked God for help, and knowing that our undertaking, while rightful, is not the end-all, be-all of our well-being, let’s make a decision.

Remember, we were given free will by the Lord. He wants us to choose what we do, as conscious beings and not robots.

It is easy to forget we have free will. Often we feel like we don’t have free will because the pressures of our environment constrain us and form us. This is not the case.

While we do respond to our environment (e.g., when a class has an exam, we prepare and show up for it), we may make our own choices. Every action bears consequences, and we must fearlessly say that we accept those consequences from every choice we make. Pretending that we lost our free will is often an effort to absolve ourselves from those consequences: “I missed church on Sunday, but I had to study for an exam…”

The encouragement is this: study for your exams and work very hard on them, but do so with intention, not out of default. Don’t do it because other students are doing it, because you’ve been told it’s what you’re supposed to do. Do it because these exams are important to your ideal life; a life that is aimed not on worldly success, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal (Matthew 6:19). Do it because these exams, in some way, contribute to your path to the Kingdom of Heaven.